The Underground Seamus Heaney Personal Response Essays

Posted on by Gara

In December 1964 the New Statesman published three poems by Seamus Heaney: Digging, Storm on the Island and Scaffolding. On the facing page, the magazine carried a large advertisement for Faber and Faber. The coincidence is brilliantly, if accidentally, prophetic. As a direct result of the appearance of these poems in the magazine, the Bloomsbury publisher wrote to Heaney inviting him to submit a manuscript, an event he later recalled as “like getting a letter from God the Father”.

In May 1966 Faber published Death of a Naturalist, the book that manuscript became, and Heaney’s first. The rest, of course, is literary history. But it is also part of the contemporary culture that successive generations have shared, through reading Heaney’s poems, studying them at school, and recognising that he could, with remarkable clarity and seeming ease, give expression to experiences we might not have been able to name ourselves.

For many, Death of a Naturalist is a familiar book. Some of the most instantly recognisable and often recalled of Heaney’s poems belong to it, and written into them are the relationships with people and places which sustained and defined his career. Father and son share the page in Digging and Follower; the family is recalled in its grief after the death of Heaney’s young brother Christopher in Mid-Term Break.

Many of the poems summon the south Co Derry landscape with a precision that was immediately praised by critics. But Belfast too, where Heaney lived, worked and was starting a family at the time, is present in the collection. Sometimes the urban is directly represented: in the grim sectarian prognosis of Docker, or the candlelit observance of Poor Women in a City Church. Elsewhere it is implied at the edge of the poems. Blackberry-Picking may be set at summer’s end among the “hayfields, cornfields, and potato-drills” of Heaney’s childhood, but it is dedicated to Philip Hobsbaum, Heaney’s early champion and founder of the famous Belfast Group, and so it reminds us how the pen-driven destiny which is anticipated in Digging came to pass. Similarly, Personal Helicon, the last poem in the collection, is dedicated to Michael Longley, great friend and fellow poet whom Heaney came to know through Hobsbaum’s Group meetings.

Less well-known stories are told by one of the most easily overlooked pages in the book. The Acknowledgements, which preface the collection, list the various publications in which the poems had appeared before their Faber incarnation. Here, a composite picture emerges of a young poet finding his voice in print, and being variously represented by editors on both sides of the Irish Sea. This is the picture which we have aimed to reassemble in a new exhibition at Trinity College, co-curated by students of Heaney’s poetry, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Death of a Naturalist.

Following the directions of the Acknowledgements, and using the Library’s collections, we have sought to explore the diverse origins and contexts of that first collection, and to show how it points forward to later moments in Heaney’s career. Here we find his words in publications which speak immediately to and of their present moment. In Hibernia in 1963 he cuts his critical teeth in reviews of contemporary poetry. In spring 1965, he shares the contents page of the Dublin Magazine with an emerging generation of writers including Longley, Eavan Boland and Derek Mahon. His pamphlet, Eleven Poems, published in the Queen’s Festival series, is a sign of the cultural energy in Belfast in the mid-1960s. And it is a sheer delight to find him in Vogue in September 1965, profiled by Polly Devlin, features editor and his sister-in-law, and pictured by Norman Parkinson, the leading fashion photographer who counted Audrey Hepburn and the Beatles among his subjects.

Four students were centrally involved in putting the exhibition together: Megan Oliver, a third-year undergraduate in English and History, Anna D’Alton and Clare Ní Cheallaigh, who have just completed their degrees in English and English and Classics respectively, and Virginie Trachsler, who is writing a Master’s thesis on Heaney and Boland at the University of Lyon, and has been working as French language assistant at Trinity this year.

In two essays written to accompany the exhibition, and published on the blog of Trinity’s Early Printed Books department, they reflect at length on the images of Heaney which emerge from the items on display, and the ways in which these inform, and in some cases might even change, our understanding of his early poetry.

Megan and Clare looked at Young Commonwealth Poets ’65, an anthology edited by PL Brent in which two poems by Heaney appeared: Scaffolding and Soliloquy for an Old Resident. The anthology’s title was showing its age even then, in an increasingly post-colonial era. It also highlights the politics of publishing which surrounded Heaney’s early career as an Irish poet of nationalist background from, and here taken to represent, Northern Ireland. As they explain: “The literary world was unsure of how to place his work contextually and he himself had not gained the confidence to proclaim his passport green and defy any association with Britishness.” That proclamation would come – famously – nearly two decades later, in An Open Letter (1983).

As Heaney’s profile rose after Death of a Naturalist was published, London editors looked to him for comment and analysis on the Northern question. Two essays – seminal texts, arguably, in his early career, although he chose not to include them in his prose collections – are exemplary. The first, Ulster’s Troubles, was written for the New Statesman’s Out of London column in July 1966. Here he is wry and impatient, moving from current events (the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising and the Queen’s impending visit to Belfast) to the kitchens of working-class Belfast and walls graced respectively with Elizabeth on horseback or “the benign countenance of a Pope, or series of Popes”. Two years later the mood was changing. In a front-page article for the Listener called Old Derry’s Walls, Heaney captured the anger and uncertainty which followed the violent suppression of the decisive civil rights march in Derry on October 5th, 1968. Anna and Virginie considered this aspect of Heaney’s early work. As they point out in their essay, “Heaney earned a double status from the beginning, as a poet, and as a writer who acquired a public role”.

Earlier this year Faber reissued Death of a Naturalist with its original block-colour cover design. It also published Heaney’s last work, his translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. We turn to these iconic Faber books to encounter Heaney’s poetry in its most permanent form. From them we can also work back to those more ephemeral instances of publication. There we find, to quote Digging, the “living roots” of his writing life.

Death of a Naturalist at 50 - Seamus Heaney in Print, 1966-2016 is on display in The Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin, until August.The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, will unveil a bust of Seamus Heaney by artist Carolyn Mulholland on temporary loan from the Arts Council, on June 8th, at 4pm, at Sandymount Green, Dublin 4

FORTY years ago a young Irish Catholic poet called Seamus Heaney, son of an Ulster farming family, brought out a slim collection of verse called “Death of a Naturalist”. That book was remarkable for the way in which it memorialised his childhood in County Derry in the 1940s through a sequence of poems that were dense, rich and fresh with the particulars of manual labour. The cycle of the turning year was described with loving care: blackberry-picking, turning hay, digging potatoes. And at the centre of that rural world was Mr Heaney's own, taciturn, farmer father, “coarse boot nestled on the lug” of his spade as he prepared to sink it into gravelly ground.

Mr Heaney's wish, as expressed in the first poem in that collection, was to do with his pen what his father did with the spade, day in day out—to delve with it, cleanly, thoroughly, deeply, with a kind of honest, shapely craftsmanship. If he could dig with his squat pen as his father and grandfather had dug with their spades and mattocks, that would be quite sufficient.

In the intervening years, Mr Heaney's poetry has grown denser and much more wide-ranging. It has explored the world of myth and legend; it has engaged with the complexities of politics; it has included fine work in translation, such as a version of the Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf”, which brought new life to a dry classic that many believed should be owned, but not necessarily read.


Now, in his first collection for five years, Mr Heaney seems to have come full circle. His new book is larded with loving descriptions of machinery found on the farm of his childhood. The opening poem of the book, for example, is a tribute to the turnip-snedder “standing guard/on four braced greaves”. To sned means, amongst other things, to chop. That hearty recollection also marks a return to older preoccupations: tributes to fellow 20th-century poets, especially George Seferis, Constantine Cavafy and Pablo Neruda (“O my Pablo of earthlife”); a re-encounter with the ghost of his father and a slow, dense evocation of his own schooldays and schoolfriends.

Many of the poems are clearer, simpler and harder-edged than much of what he has written in the past 30 years. Fewer people will puzzle over his meanings in this book and come away partially frustrated. The poems often evoke the thinginess—the weight and the heft—of things. They marshal their forces with a deliberate slowness. Sometimes a poem can consist of a single sentence, the impact of which builds and gathers force in anticipation of its final line. A wonderful, 14-line poem called “A Shiver”, for example, is about preparing to swing a sledge-hammer at a wall. Mr Heaney has a very particular way with adjectives—he often clots them together, so that the reader feels their dense and thickening presence. Bobby Breen's fireman's helmet, for example, is “Leather-trimmed, steel-ridged, hand-tooled,/hand-sewn,/Tipped with a little bud of beaten copper...”.

But this is by no means a backward-looking book. There is no reek of nostalgia about it, no sense that Mr Heaney is repeating himself. And it is made all the stronger by the fact that it is a book that embraces the recent past. The verses that begin “In an age of bare hands/and cast iron” reach a contemporary epiphany in the work that gives the book its title: the District and Circle lines are two tracks on the London Underground. When Mr Heaney speaks of being “hurtled forward,/Reflecting in a window mirror-backed/By blasted weeping rock-walls”, he evokes, not just magnificent feats of engineering, but also the bombs that exploded on the tube last July—and, of course, Dante's descent into the underworld. Similarly, when Mr Heaney, in a translation from the Roman poet Horace, writes that “Anything can happen, the tallest towers/Be overturned, those in high places daunted”, he has in mind not only the topless towers of Ilium, but also the towers of lower Manhattan.

This is one of those remarkable books of poetry which demonstrates, with particular suddenness and clarity, what poems of the finest quality are really good for. They re-energise the language, and by doing so, they serve to quicken the reader's soul.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition

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